You are here

Antique Undead: Gothic Horror, Romanticism, and the Grand Tour

James Uden

This paper analyzes three short prose narratives from the Romantic period: John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), Lord Byron’s ‘Augustus Darvell: A Fragment of a Ghost Story’ (1819) and Mary Shelley’s ‘Valerius, the Reanimated Roman’ (1819). These narratives all depict British travelers in Greece and Rome who find themselves faced with Gothic horrors amid the monuments of the classical past. I argue that these texts, which are typically read for their contribution to the topoi of horror fiction (Gelder 1994) or for their biographical information about the authors (Skarda 1989), in fact recast in Gothic register satirical critiques of the Grand Tour. Instead of being morally or culturally improved by the contemplation of classical sites, the characters in these stories are corrupted, disaffected, or endangered by their contact with antiquity. Moreover, by viewing Greece and Rome through a Gothic lens, these authors suggestively characterize classical influence as something potentially sinister. The ‘Eternal’ City seems, instead, unnervingly undead.

While later vampire tales situated the creature in Transylvania, Polidori’s story – the first complete extent vampire narrative in English – imagines the vampire in Greece, where he preys upon a tourist magnetized by the appeal of classical sites. Polidori was briefly Byron’s personal doctor, and the vampire of the story is clearly a caricature of Byron’s worst traits. But, in a post-Napoleonic era when the British were flooding the Continent, and Byron himself was becoming an icon for a new ‘Romantic’ tourist industry (Buzard 1993), the vampire also epitomizes the worst kind of traveller: a gambler and seducer, who is utterly self-absorbed and indifferent to the landscape around him. The tourist in Polidori’s story is also constantly distracted and endangered by his curiosity for the classical. He is depicted reading Pausanias and deciphering Greek inscriptions, and is so fixated on reaching a particular site that he fails to notice, to his peril, that darkness has fallen. Lord Byron’s own fragmentary vampire narrative is very brief, but it is also set amongst ‘the ruins of Ephesus and Sardis’, and the ritual for reincarnating the vampire is conducted at ‘the ruins of the temple of Ceres’. The myth of Persephone’s return becomes, in Gothic eyes, a monstrous kind of reincarnation.

Mary Shelley’s story was written just a year after Frankenstein, but it was never published in her lifetime, and remains little known. It describes a meeting between a mysteriously reanimated citizen of Republican Rome and a British woman visiting the Colosseum, who uses her classical education to tell the Roman of events after the fall of the Republic (Hurst 2007). The element of Gothic horror is very muted; the mood is, rather, one of disappointment. The Roman is dismayed on learning of his people’s subsequent fortunes, and the British woman, despite her ‘love and reverence’ for the Roman, feels ‘involuntary uneasiness’ in his presence. Shelley’s story punctures British pretensions to being itself a kind of reanimated Rome. The Roman ruins convey a sense of vivid presence to the traveller – they summon up the ghost of the past – and yet the desired communion between ancient and modern ends in disaffection.


In the neoclassical vision of the ancient world, and in conventional narratives of the Grand Tour, contact with antiquities offered ‘knowledge and improvements’ to moderns. But the three Romantic texts examined in this paper imagine the classical as far less amenable to modern use. They also pose provocative questions about our own metaphors for understanding classical reception. Are the classics truly something we ‘receive’? Are we masters over the past? Or does the classical world, instead, still exert its mastery over us? These stories vividly attest to the strange fascination of the classical tradition, which is seductive in its charms, exists beyond the bounds of mortality, and, like Polidori's vampire, is liable to periodic reanimation.

Session/Panel Title:

Recovering the Monstrous and the Sublime

Session/Paper Number

63.4

Share This Page

© 2019, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy